Thursday, July 31, 2008

On The DownLine

Once in a while, chasing women has its' downside.

It's my own fault. I was asking for it. Can't blame anyone but myself.

Last night I decided to hit a local diner for a late night dinner. I hadn't eaten all day and was just starving after an evening edit session for the new web-based television show I've been developing. As I walked in, I spotted this relatively attractive looking woman in business attire and casually positioned myself at the table across from her. She seemed pretty friendly, so I thought: Game On.

That's when the alarms started going off in my head. I should have run away right then and there.

I've been out on the mean streets of dating for a long time now. I've had successes and many failures meeting women. It's fun and there's a game and science to the whole thing. And the usual girl you approach in a diner is going to be a bit apprehensive at first. They're not going to engage you straightaway without a little bit of work. This one was friendly, chatty and all too eager to meet me. Run Away!

I'm not Brad Pitt and she was a bit more enthusiastic to chat than what I would consider normal, while mentioning that she had just come out of a "business meeting." A "business meeting"? It's eleven thirty at night. Who talks like that?

Then, it hit me: business attire, overly enthusiastic chat and cryptic wording about "business meeting" and "opportunities" - this girl had to be in a multilevel/network marketing scheme I started to wonder how long it would be before she started talking about "financial independence" and "residual income."

Back in the mid-1990s, I had the honor and privilege of joining the top paintball team in Hawaii: Team Ronin. These guys were amongst the best in the nation (and therefore, the world) and I would be amongst them. It was a fantastically wild and thrilling time for me and we were a very close and tight-knit team. That is, until Amway came along.

Some of the senior members got roped into Amway and proceeded to recruit the other team members with dreams of financial independence and how they wanted everyone to be successful and enjoy their lives. They spoke of living the good life.

This occurred at the pinnacle of the team's success. At the time, Ronin was the best team in Hawaii. I traveled the professional circuit back then and saw teams from around the country and I knew then that Ronin was also one of the best in America and could take the national title. It was our time to shine. It was our time for paintball glory. We send a ragtag team of Ronins to one of the professional tour stops and handily beat the nation's top team at the time in a preliminary round. With a little effort and preparation, we could have dominated.

Instead of pursuing the gold, these clowns wanted to pursue Amway and its' unfulfilled dreams. And I was big on their recruiting target.

I don't know what it is about multilevel/network marketing schemes, but there must be a certain type of psychology involved. Perhaps they prey on a weakness or neediness inherent in people, but they're very good at brainwashing and creating minions who will blindly follow whatever their upline tells them. But while they openly spoke of wanting success for everyone, I was becoming the thorn in their sides as a resistor.

The reality is that I don't like to work. I would prefer to work less and make more. The notion of residual income appeals to me. I naturally wanted to see how Amway worked and what I would need to do to get it to work. So, I attended some meetings, asked a lot of questions and listened to what they had to say. The rhetoric was very good. It was seductive. It was seduction. But no one ever really answered my questions right away. There was always some sort of diversion. Some sort of obfuscation of the answer. That sent up red flags for me.

In short time, I was becoming the enemy amongst the group. Lines were being drawn in the sand between those who were part of Amway and the rest of us: "The Dream-Stealers."

Perhaps we asked too many questions.

One of my closest friends also joined Amway, but for some reason, he was able to avoid the brainwashing bit and we were able to have concise conversations about their system and what was going on between the members of the team. During one meeting, one of the senior members of Team Ronin stated that: "A friend who is not in Amway is not a friend." I was shocked and confronted this person directly. He, of course, denied ever saying this, but his actions and demeanor demonstrated that he was lying. This was our team captain. Our leader. He was the one who had brought Amway into the team and was forcing it to divide us. Fucker.

I was never against Amway or anyone involved in Amway. After doing my own research and running their numbers, I decided that it just wasn't for me. Too much work. I needed to secure six high-powered downlines pumping out at least 3600 PV points per month to make any decent money. That's a lot of recruiting and cheerleading, and I just wasn't interested. I just wanted to play paintball and amongst the best in the world. And we were.

But Amway was destroying us like a cancer: from the inside. Because I asked the questions, I had gone from recruitment dream to Ronin Enemy Number One and it became their task to rout me out of the team. Afterall, I was a naysayer in their minds. Someone who junior members might listen to and not join Amway. I was a Dream-Stealer.

Of course, the very same personality that endeared me to them pre-Amway was the personality they would use to try to kick me off the team. Even back then, I was a brash, foul-mouthed young lad. I played hard, cursed and if I could intimidate a weak judge for a better on-field ruling, I would. Paintball marker acting up? Into the trash. Conduct unbecoming a gentleman? What do you think?

The sad thing was that I was never against them. I wanted them to have the fantastic wealth they dreamed about. If their dream was to play paintball all day and never have to worry about money, then that's the hope I had for them. It just wasn't my dream and their brainwashing didn't allow them to see that. All they saw was someone who wasn't interested in being their downline and, therefore, their enemy.

What they didn't see was what I saw: a never-ending stream of underperforming downlines, years of work and frustration with no real payoff. I saw their diamonds not as carefree millionaires, but as carefully plotting marketers who understood that their revenue was derived off of my friends and a continuing stream of them who eagerly shelled out their hard-earned cash to attend "business meetings", travel to conventions and lots and lots of tapes and materials designed to pump them up that was the true bread and butter for the diamonds. I saw them working hard and spending their hard-earned money on a pipe dream. A dream that would probably never come to fruition because the numbers just don't work.

In the end, I was right. None of them ever made millions. None of them ever became "financially independent." After five years, those still involved were still working their day jobs, dreaming of the big payoff. Some had dropped out.

As for our team captain who brought Amway into our ranks, he passed away several years ago after he contracted a malady (I don't know the details). I was invited to come to the funeral and really wanted to see old teammates, but I didn't. Too many unpleasant thoughts at the time. He was a good man who did and said things to me that scarred our relationship permanently. It would have been good to chat with him before his passing to see if things had changed, but now I'll never know. I wish he had achieved his dreams. I wish they all had achieved their dreams. They deserved it.

"Do you mind if I eat with you?"

This was it. The show was on. It was time to recruit me once again.

After awhile of being involved around these schemes, one starts to see patterns. They've developed scripts. Scripts with careful phrases designed to peak your interest and divert your attention. Don't you want financial independence? They always like to talk about how it's "their" business when they're really resellers working off commission. She started tossing around talk about the multi-billion dollar communications industry and how their company is endorsed by Donald Trump and wanted to show me a recent copy of Success at Home magazine featuring their company.

Lots of hype, but let's get down to substance. What does it take to make the money you're dreaming of?

Maybe I let the cat out of the bag, but I told her that I was familiar with Amway's structure and wanted to know how many downlines she needed (and performing at what level) in order to make the kind of money to be "financially independent." This was met with questions about if I wanted to "make money while I sleep." I told her that I already do, that's why I'm in business.

A bit more prodding on my part, a bit more evasion on hers, plus an invitation to come to a business meeting or meet with her upline who would gladly be able to answer my questions. Do you know the answers yourself? I asked her. She assured me she did but that she wasn't going to break with protocol because they would best be answered by her upline. Christ Almighty, is she for real?

As it was almost midnight, I needed to get home to sleep. After escaping, I was back on the mean streets of one of the most dangerous cities in America and felt safe indeed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Plotting & Scheming at Starbucks

Some texts, a Vivanno and my recipe book while thinking about punching that guy in the dick.

The big news in the coffee business lately isn't about dick punching (though that takes the cake for the most stupidity expressed in a customer service issue that I've ever seen), it's about Starbucks' recent announcement that they would be closing six hundred stores and laying off one thousand employees. Gosh, sucks to be them.

In the coffee business, I'm known for not really giving a crap about what Starbucks does, so while my buddies in coffee prance to their local Starbucks every few weeks or so, to "see what Big Green is doing," I'm busy at home snuggling with a bunny or plotting my next adventure (or at least my next meal).

So it's ironic that I found myself at the local Starbucks today for a little hiding out and menu planning.

The truth of the matter is that, next to Border's Bookstore, Starbucks provides one of the best venues to hide out. Comfortable seats, tables, air conditioning, tasteful decor - it's much more comfortable and conducive to plotting your diabolical plan to take over the world than say, McDonald's or the local indie coffeeshop.

Oh, and I hear the coffee cognoscenti massing in the courtyard for my lynching...

But that's the truth. 99% of indie coffeeshops suck at providing a relaxed, tasteful environment for hiding and plotting. Sure, they've got "ambience" - if you want to believe that remnant furniture and weird decor is ambient. But in this heat, we need proper air conditioning and a quiet place to plot, without some sort of college-level chalang-a-lang music banging in your ears. And for that, Starbucks tends to deliver in spades.

Even my beloved Spro Coffee is a poor stand-in for diabolical planning. Heck, I could own the most conducive place on the planet for planning and scheming and I still wouldn't be able to plot and scheme. The sad fact of the matter is that it's absolutely impossible for me to hang out in my own shop. First off, God knows my customers don't want to see the owner hanging out and fucking off in the corner at a table. If they see me, they need to see me working, not sitting there with a notebook.

Secondly, it's my shop, which means that I can never get anything done if I'm there. Once inside, there's always phone calls to field, customers with questions, staff crises, inventory problems - there's always something that demands my attention, and it ain't World Domination. It's more like: "Do you think we need to order more Lapsang Souchong tea?"

So, off to Starbucks it is. The other option was the local hookah lounge where they welcome (and encourage) cigar smoking. But while I love me a good cigar, I just wasn't up for one this afternoon and I didn't want my clothes to rank of smoke later. I decided to save the cigar until my forces have conquered the next distant land.

My problem at Starbucks (or any coffeeshop, for that matter) is what to order? God knows the espresso is terrible and I'm scared to death of the frappuccino, so iced tea it is. It's a perfunctory cup of iced tea and I had it with "one pump" of syrup (evidently the 16z normally gets four). Not the best tea, but certainly enjoyable.

I spent the next hour or two pouring through some cookbooks for ideas and shopping lists and then ran out of iced tea. Damn. Now what?

I'm not one who likes to camp out without supporting the establishment, so I went for round two. After a blinding blitz by the baristas to try their new Vivanno, I defensively ordered one because I didn't know what else to get. The Vivanno is their new blended drink with mango, orange and banana. It's not very good. Actually, it could have been great - had they used fresh fruit instead of their mix from Naked Juice. It left a filmy residue on my palate and just sucked. Cut the protein & fiber powder and 2% milk and go all natural - it's much better tasting that way.

In the end, I had a decent iced tea, a lame smoothie and a not so exciting Top Pot Doughnut, but at least I finished next weeks' menu.

And what's this menu for you say? In August, The Spro celebrates it's Second Anniversary and since I'll be behind the bar all next week, I decided to offer a special menu to celebrate. Our actual anniversary is on August 18th, but I'll be in Hawaii that week, so we'll do our celebrating this coming week.

Here's the proposed menu. It may change depending what I find at the farmer's markets this weekend. I'll spend the rest of the evening writing the actual recipes.


Monday, August 4th
- Strawberry Mint Terrine
Locally grown strawberries and home grown mint in a citrus terrine.
- Grilled & Chilled Eggplant
Charcoal grilled eggplant with sesame dressing. served cold.

Tuesday, August 5th
- Spanish Gazpacho
Traditional tomato based Spanish-style cold soup.
- Grilled Steak & Tabbouleh Salad
Sliced ribeye over tabbouleh, served cold.

Wednesday, August 6th
- Oranges Like Fred
Sliced oranges with olive oil and sea salt
- Salad of Grilled Asparagus and Spinach
with Roquefort cheese.
- Thai Red Curry
with lobster?

Thursday, August 7th
- Tangerine, Frisee & Sweet Potato Salad
- Chilled Southern Fried Chicken
with cornbread and coleslaw

Friday, August 8th
- Melon with Tequila & Lime
Honeydew melon, Patron tequila and lime.
- Tacos Campechanes
Mexico City style tacos filled with chorizo and shredded beef, topped with cilantro and onions on a corn tortilla.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


After years of procrastination and months of just languishing, I've finally gotten off my ass, finished and released an updated website for Jays Shave Ice and a new website for The Spro. It's amazing how hard it can be to update and redesign a website. The Jays Shave Ice site hadn't been updated for two years and The Spro site went through three versions before I settled on this one in March.

In fact, I built most of the Spro's website in March and then it just sat there, in my hard drive while I procrastinated obtaining the username and password that I had forgotten over the years for the webserver. Dumb.

Anyway, enough excuses. Check out the sites if you have a moment and let me know what you think. I'm not a flash-oriented person. I want the sites to load quickly and provide the right amount of information without the muss and fuss that so many companies force you to endure.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Gen pouts as the Happy Hour comes to a close.

Whenever Restaurant Week hits the city, I always tell myself that I'm gonna go out to those restaurants that I've been wanting to hit but never do. Then, when Restaurant Week arrives, I find myself either too busy or just not that interested in going to the restaurants participating. Because the truth is that I really don't need a gimmicky event like Restaurant Week to get me to check out a place, I just need time and a desire to eat there.

After hearing some so-so reviews from friends, Tsunami wasn't high on my list of "must eat" places in Baltimore, but when Chef Mike sent a text for a Restaurant Week dinner, I figured "what the hell."

It's six p.m. and high noon for Tsunami's Happy Hour where sushi is half-off. Problem is that "sushi" is a misnomer since they mean maki sushi and not the nigiri sushi that I prefer. This preferential treatment towards rolls is an ominous sign about their attitude towards sushi and their clientele base.

Too Blue Cocktails.

By the time I arrive, my friends are in full swing, chugging down various blue-tinted cocktails. I'm not partaking of alcohol on this excursion, so I decline their generous offers of libation - instead focusing on a glass of water and the always addictive edamame.

Tsunami is located in a restored building that once was a brush factory. About six years ago, I had the opportunity to tour the building with it's multi-storied 1800s machinery and leather drive belts. It was a fascinating factory and the restoration seems to be a good one. Upstairs is a chic bowling alley where you can rent a lane for an exorbitant $40/hour. Chic, trendy and expensive? Thanks, but no thanks.

The restaurant shares it's kitchen, bathrooms and connects with it's neighbor, Lemongrass. Evidently both are owned by the same Annapolis based restaurant of the same names.

One would think that an organization with four restaurants under its' belt would have some sort of functional website. Not so with Tsunami. A visit to their website turns up a splash page where you can choose either their Baltimore or Annapolis sites. Choose Baltimore and you get a "Coming Soon" notice. Click on "Annapolis" and a new browser window opens with a separate URL and then...well, nothing happens.

A call to the restaurant for location confirmation and a mention of the missing website to the hostess results in a quip about the restaurant being open since November 2007 and there is a website. I guess the splash page telling interested clients that the website is "Coming Soon" qualifies as an active website to these people.

Sushi Roll

I like fish. Unlike some of my friends, I like my sushi raw. I had originally been planning to order a large round of nigiri but when informed that the happy hour price only applied to rolls, I thought better of it and ordered just one. It's a shame though, because had the happy hour special applied to the nigiri, I would have spent a lot more than the roll.

How was the roll? Perfunctory. It wasn't bad. I just wasn't great. It wasn't notable. Thin cuts of fish on slightly dry rice. Nothing to rave about, but not bad enough to send back either. Considering the number of Asians running the kitchen, I wonder if this standard of sushi is held because management just doesn't care or that the clientele is too focused on rolls and cooked stuff in rolls that it really doesn't matter. As a result, I'm actually happy that I didn't order an onslaught of nigiri.

Ahi Poke.

While the rest of our crew ordered the Restaurant Week Prix Fixe Menu, I decided to go with selections from the main menus' appetizers. First off, is the seemingly rapidly spreading Ahi Poke - that dish of Hawai'i origins. In the islands, just about any raw seafood can be made into poke. Got some fresh octopus, skipjack or 'opihi? They can be made into poke. Just cut 'em up into 1/2" hunks, mix it all up and it's ready to go.

But the trend in fine dining poke is to cut the fish into small dice and serve. Some places, like Roy's, do a nice job with ahi poke. Other places are outright disasters. Tsunami's poke is somewhere in-between. Presentation is very smart with the poke wrapped in a slice of cucumber. The fish is of nice quality and the basics of onion and sesame oil are there. It's just missing something: salt - either in the form of proper alaea salt or shoyu. I detected a trace of salt in the mix but not enough to make it pop. It's the juxtaposition of the roasted sesame oil and the saltiness that makes poke the hit that it is. I ended up mixing in some soy sauce to compensate and all was fine.


More Beef

For my "main course," I decided to go with another appetizer and ordered the sliced beef and a side order of steamed rice. I'd like to tell you more about the beef but I rely on a restaurants' online menu for names and descriptions of dishes, but since Tsunami is contented to have almost nothing for a website, I have no real details to offer you, gentle reader. What I do remember is that the dish came with a small salad, some twists of green onion, something tempura battered and fried (cheese, I think) and while the beef was a nicely cooked medium, it lacked flavor and required a liberal application of salt.

To add to that, our server completely neglected to place my order for a side of steamed rice. Luckily, Reese's dish of steamed cod wrapped in banana leaf featured a side of steamed rice that she wasn't going to finish.

Pork Fried Rice

Of all the dishes that rolled onto our table, the stand out was the pork fried rice that a couple of the others had ordered. The flavors were good (at least from the spoonful I had) and the pork was braised to a tender texture. However, don't ask the server what the pork is braised in - that leads one in a discussion that goes round and round and eventually nowhere:

It's braised in its' own juices, was the original reply.

That's nice, but braised meat doesn't start out that way... A simple measure would have been to run to the kitchen to ask the cooks what the pork was braised in, but that seemed too obvious to try at the time.

Steamed Cod

The steamed cod sat across the table from me and I had a bite. The texture was pretty good. I'd say it was cooked perfectly. The banana leaf gave it a bit of sweetness. Unfortunately, it just didn't go anywhere else. Once you savored the sweetness and tender texture in the first bite - that was it. Nothing more. No depth. No complexity. What a shame 'cause it looked really nice.

I decided against the prix fixe meal because I've been losing my desire for desserts lately. Just too much sweet at the end of big meals. I want something punchy. Something vibrant. Not something that's going to weigh me down like sweets and ice cream.

The Gang

All in all, it wasn't a bad time. It wasn't a stellar time. The food was rather perfunctory - kinda like an Asian place designed for unadventurous white people. Exotic-looking but bland. Toss in some rice lanterns, a couple of Buddha statues and the obligatory chopsticks and you've got an Asian-themed restaurant. Wash the natural brick walls in deep blue and you've got a hip night spot for trendsters.

But if you're the kind of diner who's looking for authentic flavor, there are a few hole-in-the-wall places that do better and are worth the effort.

1300 Bank Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Like Warm Blueberry Pie...

Mini-Blueberry Pies cooling out and looking vain.

Today, I was sitting around with my mom discussing general topics of life, baking and the reasons for moving to a weight-based system of baking, when we somehow got on the subject of pastry dough. Mom does quite a bit of the baking for The Spro, ranging from classics like Red Velvet to Chocolate Nemesis to little, frilly cupcakes. She got her start back when I was running Jay's Shave Ice and she wanted to try making the Chocolate Nemesis cake for the shop. Back then, Jay's Shave Ice wasn't equipped for refrigerated display of cakes and pastries, but once we installed our sushi case, she got cracking.

I have to admit that I was hesitant at first. She wasn't a baker. She is a doctor who still practices medicine. But, my mom was insistent that I at least give it a try - and who can really say "no" to their mom?

Fast forward to present time and mom has evolved into an excellent baker. I'm continually surprised by the level of skill and quality she produces (and I'm not saying that because she's my mom). Her stuff is really quite good.

My only peeve is her penchant for volume-based measurement. It's one cup this, two cups that, and three-quarter cups of the other. Oh, and only medium eggs. If I get a deal from Woolsey Farm on XL eggs, she doesn't like them and I end up making scrambled eggs for the next two weeks. I'm constantly trying to get her to convert her recipes to weight-based measuring, but it's just not working out.

I hear your pleas - weight is more consistent. I know, I know, I tell her all the time. Problem is that her consistency is pretty darn consistent and the customers love the products, so my consistency argument is tenuous at best in her mind.

Today, I thought I would try another tactic. Recently, I bought a digital scale for the bakery to use alongside the mechanical scales we have in-house. We were talking about new recipes and started talking about making tarte tatins for The Spro, which got us into discussing how to make pate brisee as a base.

In case you're not familiar, pate brisee is a great general pastry base that can be used in place of puff pastry. It just takes a little time to prepare and you can make a big batch and refrigerate (or freeze) and use as necessary. Mom was ready to give it a try, but I had a surprise in store: everything was weight-based.

The basic recipe we used was 1000g of cake flour and from there, the recipe is ratio-based (the ratios are based on the weight of the flour): 25% sugar, 30% liquid (could be water, but I used eggs and milk) and 50% very cold cubed butter. So, the actual amounts were:


The beauty of the ratio method is that you can start off with any amount of flour and work from there. Need only 250g? No problem. Want to make 65 Kilos? Better get a bigger mixer.

After you cube the butter, you want it to be super cold. Put it in the freezer for about an hour. The colder the better. With the flour and sugar in the mixer, start adding the butter. Keep mixing the flour and butter until it turns a certain consistency. It's hard for me to accurately describe the correct consistency but it should ball in your hand but easily crumble apart. Do an internet search because I'm sure someone else can more accurately describe it than I can. I'd have to show you in person. That's how I learned it.

Once the mix is ready, add liquid ingredients and mix until combined. Once the liquids have been combined, stop immediately. You do not want to fully combine the butter into the mix. Ideally, you want the liquid to bind everything while still leaving small bits and chunks of butter in the mix.

Dump in out onto a floured worksurface and knead briefly into a ball and break up into useable portions (if you're making larger batches). Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least two hours until very cold.

At this point, the brisee is pretty much done. If you have excessive amounts, you can freeze those for future use. You want to refrigerate to relax the glutens as well as keep the butter and everything cold. Then, when it's time to use, take it out, beat to flatten and roll it out with a rolling pin to the desired thickness for whatever you're using it for.

The interior: not too shabby looking for a quick fix.

We had some blueberries in the fridge, so I decided we would make mini-blueberry pies. Making the filling is relatively simple, just toss these ingredients in a bowl:

Fresh, locally grown blueberries
25% sugar
2 tblsp brandy
1 tsp ground cinnamon
lemon juice

Ideally, you want to use round molds, but since we didn't have any, I grabbed a couple of mini cheesecake springforms, tossed the bottoms and used the rings. For pie dough, you want to roll it out on the thick side to hold in the filling. Cut a circle about twice the diameter of the ring and carefully insert the dough into the ring, running the dough up the sides.

And it would help later if you remember to grease the rings with butter beforehand.

Place the dough-lined rings on a silpat lined baking sheet and preheat the oven to 425F. Pour the filling into the center of the dough. Cut a circle of dough to cover the top of the pie and cut a cross-shaped pattern in the center to allow heat to escape during baking. Sprinkle some demarara sugar over the tops of the pies.

For these mini-sized pies, bake at 425F for ten minutes. Then lower the temperature to 350F and bake for an additional 15 minutes until done. Pull the tray from the over and allow to cool for a few minutes. Then separate the pies from the ring molds - you want to do this when the pies are still hot because it will be easier than after they have cooled completely.

Place the pies on a wire rack to cool for at least two hours prior to serving.

Our first attempt at these pies were pretty decent, I thought. The springform rings are a bit too tall, creating pies that are just too big for one person. With smaller rings, I think we might have a winner and a new menu item for The Spro.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Not Quite Shave Ice

The Banana Banshee and Blumenthal.

Ironic that the first post after I announce the G9 would be accompanied by another iPhone photo, isn't it?

On Thursday, I blew the tire on my GMC Sonoma and ended up changing it in the dark with Jackie coming out to check on me every few minutes. Too macho to accept her offers for help, I trudged along in the bleak darkness.

Yesterday, I took the damaged tire to the local Good Year dealer for a repair. While waiting, I decided to visit our old competitor: SnoAsis - the long-standing snowball stand on Padonia Road in Timonium for a taste of their Banana Banshee snowball.

To the uninitiated, snowballs, shaved ice and shave ice are all the same. Au contraire, mon ami. There is a big difference and it's all in the ice. True Hawaiian-style shave ice (no "d" in "shave") is extremely fine in texture. Like snow with no chunks or chips of ice in any form. The snowball (or New Orleans-style shaved ice) that they serve at SnoAsis is nice but there's still bits of ice pieces in the snowball. It's slightly crunchy. And there's nothing they can do about it.

The problem is in the actual machine used to shave the ice. The machine is designed to accommodate a 6" x 6" x 12" block of ice horizontally where a hand operated plate pushes the block against three fixed blades mounted on a disk spinning at nearly 1,000 rpm. The texture of the ice is determined strictly by the amount of pressure the operator places on the ice block. Push lightly and the texture is soft and fluffy, but production is slow. Press harder and the ice comes out like a blizzard, but it gets chippy and crunchy. You can guess the amount of pressure a typical operator places on the block during a rush.

To me, this variable in the machines' design is a major flaw. Too much possibility for inconsistency in ice texture. Too easy to press harder and make it crunchy. It's a great machine for the average snowball operator but not ideal for one truly fixated on quality and the pinnacle of fluffy ice texture. In other words: It's not the machine for me.

But in the heat of the moment, it's a decent enough alternative. Some shaved ice, a bit of evaporated milk and banana syrup and all is good. But sixteen ounces of the stuff is just too much. Too much to eat and in this heat, at least a fourth of it has melted, rendering it useless. Of course, placing the snowball in a paper cup that offers no insulation doesn't help either.

At least I've got the words of Heston Blumenthal to while the time away while waiting for my tire to be repaired.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting The "G"

The Lineup: Apple iPhone 4GB, Canon 350D (XTi), Mamiya 645-1000s, Yashica T4, Canon F-1n, Canon EOS-1N, Nikonos V, Nikon LiteTouch, Nikon Coolpix 4300, Polaroid iZone and Nikon Coolpix 775 (crushed).

I've been shooting images since the seventh grade. For many years, I fancied myself as a wartime photojournalist traveling to far-off and exotic lands to see the world and take pictures of other people killing themselves. I wanted to be where the action was. Mortar fire, rocket propelled grenades and the sweet sound of AK-47 fire was, I figured, my calling.

Instead, I ended up shooting traffic accidents (with some carnage) and rock concerts for the local daily, or posed photos for national periodicals - not quite the rock and roll from heavy gunfire I was envisioning in my youth. When the HBO film Live from Baghdad came out, I wasn't aghast that they were caught by surprise at the onset of Desert Storm. I watched with envious eyes, wishing that I could have been one of those cameramen catching the most amazing footage of the twentieth century. Of course, my reality could well have been me hiding under the bathroom sink, crying out for mommy...

So why this sudden left turn about photography? Well, I've been getting complaints from friends around the world about the quality of photos on this blog, specifically the iPhone photos. "Why do you keep using that crappy iPhone camera?" Yes, I know the photos aren't the best possible, but I use it only when I don't have an alternative handy.

But all of that is about to change.

After years of being a film stalwart, I started making the slow switch to digital in 2001 with my Nikon Coolpix 775. It was a small and handy camera that fit comfortably (if bulkily) in my pocket. It was run over by a car in April 2002. From there, I moved to the Nikon Coolpix 4300. During the summer of 2004, I went whole hog and purchased the Canon 350D and started building a kit of lenses and accessories to match that of my old Canon F1 kit from my shooting days.

For a couple of years, the combination of the Nikon 4300 and Canon 350D sufficed, but the 4300 was getting a bit long in the tooth, so I went out and bought a refurbished Nikon S1 in the summer of 2006. The S1 was a decent camera but took a long time to lock focus and was just a slow camera to shoot with in lower light. Four months later, just after the warranty had expired, so did the electronics. After sending it back to Nikon and getting an estimate on the repair, I decided to abandon that camera (it was almost the same amount I had paid).

In April of 2007, during a visit to Los Angeles, I found a great deal on a Nikon Coolpix S200. I bought it. But the S200 was like the S1: slow in low light, slow in daylight, slow to shoot, slow to write, and with a reddish hue. It turned out to be one of the most frustrating cameras I've ever had to endure. I barely use it and now don't even know where I've placed it. It's that important.

I've spent a lot of time traveling these past eighteen months and the one thing that keeps growing on me is my hand-carry luggage. It's an old Tenba photographers computer case that I've been using for over ten years now. Ten years ago, it was just right and I don't remember it being a burden. Lately, it's grown into a beast that holds my iBook, 350D, video camera, books, accessories and all sorts of other stuff that I've been on a campaign to lighten my load and lose the bulk.

While I enjoy taking pictures, I don't enjoy the bulk of a small SLR, like the 350D. And while the S200 was perfect for the pocket, it infuriated me with everything else. There has to be a compromise somewhere, and before I leave on my next trip in August, I'm determined to find it.

Enter the Canon G9.

Touted as an excellent replacement its' predecessor, the G7, this camera seems to have it all: fully manual control, 12 megapixels, wide lens range and stunning picture quality that's not quite pocketable (unless you have big pockets), but small and compact enough to make it more enjoyable to tote around than the 350D.

The problem is that my local camera store is out of stock and it doesn't seem like they're going to get any more since its' successor, the G10, is going to be announced very soon. Well, as cool as that may be, I don't have the time to wait until the fall to buy a camera for an August trip. Something else has gotta work.

My trusty guy down at the camera store said I should check out Nikon's P5100. Like the Canon, it has a manual mode (though not as much manual controls on the body), a hot shoe for external flash, and good resolution in a compact body. Unlike the Canon, it doesn't shoot in RAW mode and is about $150 less. Hmm, that could be a good alternative.

I sat around for a day or two pondering my choices. I could go to Best Buy and buy the G9, but I'd pay full-tilt ($500) and support big box stores (not too keen on either). B&H in New York was also out of stock. Then a friend told me about Circuit City's online deal: $499 for the camera, $50 online rebate, additional 10% off online coupon and in-store pickup. That would bring the total price of the G9 with tax to $430, plus an additional 10% off coupon for in-store purchases. Tempting.

My favorite camera website: has a buying guide feature where you can compare side-by-side any two (or more) cameras that you desire. I lined up the P5100 against the G9, read their individual reviews and came up with only one choice.'s in-depth reviews are fantastic reference points when considering a digital camera. They've developed a standardized format that looks at everything, including photo results and the differences between the P5100 and G9 led me to only one choice. Now honestly, both cameras are great performers and for my purposes I bet I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two since it's mainly for general shooting for personal use and for this blog. But, one's greater sharpness and image quality would allow me to use it for print work in a pinch, that's important in case something happens to the 350D.

Enter the G9.

So I ran out and picked up the G9 from Circuit City for an incredible price and found the SanDisk Extreme II 4GB SDHC card on sale for $29.99 (usually $49.99) and bought two using the 10% off coupon. Whatta bargain!

While reading the reviews, I also realized that I was ready and willing to spend the money for the best camera I could find in that category. That camera was the G9. I thought about getting the P5100 and waiting until the release of the G10, but that would be a compromise. I didn't want to compromise. I wanted the best and had to be honest with myself and acknowledge that I wouldn't be happy unless I had the best. I bought the G9.

It'll take a little while for me to get out there and really work the G9 through it's paces, but hopefully you'll see more and more of it on these pages. Ciao!

Oh, and for those of you thinking about the G10. It should be in stores by the fall.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things That Make You Go: Hmmm...

A side effect of writing a public blog that at times tends to be highly critical and sometimes controversial is that it is, well - public. Meaning that people from around the world and all walks of life read what you have to say, no matter how long ago you wrote it.

From time to time, I receive comments about old posts that are probably written by people associated with, or sympathetic to whichever restaurant I reviewed at that time. Almost always these comments are left anonymously and range from simple messages of "I HATE YOU!!!!!!!!" (yes, they put in eight exclamation marks) and "You deserve to die.", to slightly more benign remarks, like: "You are a terrible person" and "If you guys like eating in Mexico so much...go back there!!!!"

Within the coffee community, I tend to be rather controversial and viewed perhaps as an arrogant prick. Since I'm willing to ask the tough questions, challenge those who are supposed to be my friends, and hold strong opinions, I can accept that. What some people choose to ignore is the fact that I make all my statements in public and in writing - under the harsh scrutiny of the general public. Some people agree, others do not. In the cases where people don't agree, I'm willing to listen to their take on things - even when they're highly critical of me.

That said, if you're a reader of this blog and have something to say, go for it. I welcome it. I might even address it. The one rule is that you must have a blogger account, sign in and leave your comments under your name. Quite simply, if you can't put your name to your critique, then it means nothing.

But on this occasion, I thought I'd take a moment to address some of the comments intended for posts over a year old (that have been submitted recently). I'll provide the quote and then my commentary will follow:

"I HATE YOU!!!!!!!!"
Thank You, but there's already a bit of a queue. To the back of the line, please.

"You are a terrible person"
You must be my ex-girlfriend from 1988. I know it tasted bitter and salty. I apologize. I've learned to drink a lot of pineapple juice since those days.

"If you guys like eating in Mexico so much...go back there!!!!"
Relax. I'll be back in the DF in September - you can read about it on my blog:

"You deserve to die."
Rest assured, there's only one certainty in life. One day, I'll be dead. And you will be too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Kalbi Me This, Kalbi Me That

Sang's Marinade and the Secret Ingredient.

Right before I jetted off on my whirlwind European Tour, Paella Party and Artscape, I took an afternoon to test out a potential new-ish approach for making Korean-style kalbi short ribs. For this test, I sourced some thick cut beef short ribs from Woolsey Farm in Churchville, Maryland. I've been sampling a bit of Woolsey's meats lately and have come to like their offerings.

For the marinade, I would rely on Sang Moon's old recipe of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, onions, green onions, ginger and a variation on the secret ingredient: Mexican Coca-Cola. Just mix it all in a bowl and soak those suckers.

Short Ribs marinated and vacuum bagged.

Actually, I left the ribs in the marinade for only about thirty minutes since I was sealing them in vacuum bags which would help the marinade penetrate the meat. A light coating will do and you can refrigerate the vac-sealed marinated meat overnight, if you wish.

But I wanted to get going, so once they were sealed and the water bath heated, I dropped them into a temperature controlled sous vide bath of 65C water and left the ribs to slow cook for three hours.

Sous Vide at 65.0 Celcius for five hours.

While I've been playing around a bit with sous vide, in many ways I'm still flying in the dark. A little experiment here, a little testing there, and voila! Maybe something good will come of this. Or I would have waited around for hours just to have a taste of disaster.

Of course, I've waited two years just to discover that my efforts in making red wine resulted in catastrophe and financial ruin. Perhaps a couple of hours and ten dollars in beef isn't that bad.

Pan Sear on all sides before serving.

After five hours, I decided to pull the ribs and see what there was to see. The nice thing about sous vide is that nothing escapes. The marinade and the juices are all trapped and the meat has to essentially braise in its' own juices, keeping the flavor close to home.

At five hours, the meat is pink all the way around. It's unnerving in a way since you're not used to seeing the outside of cooked meat so pink. Maybe it's alive. Maybe it's pissed. Whatever it is, it's time to kill it with a proper sear.

Beautifully pink inside but needs to be cooked longer.

It could go without saying that I love my cast iron pan. A properly seasoned cast iron pan is a glorious experience. Everything cooks so nicely. It sears beautifully. And clean up is lickety split. For the past year, I've been on a campaign to teach my extended families the virtues of cast iron. Some of my cousins have responded with serious enthusiasm by buying their own cast iron and cooking in them extensively.

Then there are the elders, like my aunt who complains that they're "too heavy" (they are) and that they can't get the right "look". Further investigation reveals that my aunt likes to scrub the pan with soap and water until it returns to it's "as new" color. I've gently encouraged them to let the natural patina develop by not scrubbing with soap and water. I think they're on the right path.

In the meantime, the pan has been heating on high until it starts to smoke lightly. Drizzle in some peanut oil (or whatever oil you desire), let the oil glimmer and then lay the ribs in. Allow each side to caramelize on the pan and then serve.

The results were okay. Not bad, but not exactly what I was hoping for. Even after five hours, the meat hadn't broken down enough and perhaps it needed more time in the marinade before cooking. Also, a little more salt would give the flavor the extra punch it needed.

For the next time, we're gonna have to go to twelve hours at 65C to really get the meat tender. The pink interior I think looks perfect and is the result I'm looking for without the gradient gray that results from direct heat cooking.

Good thing I had fresh steamed rice at the ready.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Surviving Artscape

Sunset on Mount Royal Avenue.

It's over.

After much heartache, anguish, sweat and tears, Artscape 2008 is now finally over.

This years' event was a scorcher. We must have hit 95F on all three days, and it wouldn't surprise me if it had spiked to nearly 100F - that's 35C and over for you metric readers. Luckily, the humidity was relatively low so while it was hot, the lack of heavy humidity didn't keep the crowds away.

Over the years, I've found that the secret mix for shave ice is warm temperatures and low humidity. Anywhere from 80-95F is fine, as long as the humidity doesn't stick to you and weigh you down. Once the humidity rises, people just want to stay home in their air conditioning. I can't blame them 'cause that's exactly what I want to do.

Sally listens to a customers' tales of woe.

This years' Artscape team brought together both newcomers and seasoned veterans. Big Tony was back for his ninth consecutive Artscape in the pivotal spot of iceman. Other Jays Alumni included Derrick (taking time away from working at Levi's), former manager Sara (home for the summer while attending Duquese) and barista sisters Sally and Hanna (both taking time away from another coffee shop and a stained glass studio, respectively).

Coming along for the ride for their first Artscape were Sara's friends Isabelle, CJ and Alan - as well as barista Allie (on loan from The Spro).

C.J. just barely hanging in there with cheap-ass Viva.

Days at Artscape are grueling twelve-hour days of nearly non-stop battle against a sea of customers. Friday is a relatively light day where customers come and go, on and off until about 7pm. At that point, we start to zoom and shave full-bore until the police shut us down at ten o'clock. Over the years, it's become a necessity that the police come to shut us down because at 10pm, the line is easily 10 to 15 deep and if we closed, we'd have a riot on our hands. At least when the police come, people grumble but they eventually give in to their authority.

Saturday is the busiest of the three because it's the longest. Throughout the day, the line rarely shrinks below five people. By four o'clock it's at least 15 deep and stays that way until the cops come again at 10pm.

Sunday seems worse than Saturday and that's because the people come early and the line is never less than ten people - and this time, they're coming in from three different directions. From about noon, it's nonstop.

The interesting thing is to see my crew at the end of the day. Chatting afterwards with Sally, Hanna and Allie and they look calm, relaxed and ready to do another six hours. In fact, Sally and Hanna a riding their bicycles all the way back to Hampden. The girls are real killers. They're ready to rock, or go out drinking, or ride a few miles in the heat.

The boys on the other hand look completely wiped out. Finished. Done. Kaput. CJ looks like he's going to puke. I ask them if they're coming back tomorrow. No way, they don't need the money that badly.

In a sad way, it reinforces the theory I started developing while running Jay's Shave Ice: that girls work harder than guys. Seeing the two sides of my team on Saturday night and one can only guess. Of course, I know plenty of guys who work their asses off and are ready to party after a twelve-hour day. Good thing Tony, Derrick and Allie are still up for a round of drinks at Woodberry Kitchen after.

Mom and Dad bring a little civility with their umbrella.

A crew from the Kleenex company is onsite promoting their new kitchen towel called Viva. As far as absorbent kitchen towels go, Viva kicks ass. It's supple, it's soft and absorbs quite a bit of liquid. My crew loves it. They're hawking it for Kleenex because they like it so much. They even give us a Viva dispenser for people to use. I'm cool with that.

But the cheap fucking bastards came by towards the end of the day Sunday and swiped the dispenser back. Bastards. Hey Kleenex, if you're gonna ask us to give out Viva samples and do your work for you, at least give us the dispenser to keep for our staff. They were supportive if your product - until now.

Isabelle, Allie and Derrick work the crowd.

Throughout the weekend, we have people who stop by to visit. Friends, neighbors, suppliers, acquaintances, fans and people who just want to know what happened to Jays Shave Ice and when will we be opening a new location. Everyone is greeted with a friendly smile and warm greetings. But what I don't get is the one person who stopped by in the middle of a rush and walked right into the middle of things to chat with me - getting in the way of my shavers. WTF? Even my closest friends don't do that.

I don't get it. Does this person just not have any sense? Just make yourself at home, dude. Why don't you lie down on the barca lounger while you're at it and ask my staff to pour you a mimosa?

I try not to embarrass people unless I can't avoid it, so I invite this person over the side and out of the way. I mean this person is standing literally behind my shaving line (and there's only enough space for one person to stand on that line). For the next ten minutes, it's blah blah blah about coffee and the coffee business. Christ, doesn't this person see that coffee is the last thing on my mind this weekend? Can't you see the thirty people in the fucking line? Don't you think I have better things to do than listen to you bitch about how you own your own business but want to hire people so you don't have to work? Jesus, I work for a living. I don't bitch about it. I've accepted that this is the life I've chosen.

Luckily, Ben from the television show Ace of Cakes comes by for a chat. I've known Ben and Heidi since before he was a television star and it's always good to see him - not to mention that it gets me away from listening about coffee. It's funny because some of my staff notices and recognizes Ben from the show and there's a buzz in the air because of it. After Ben leaves, they want to know why he was hanging out and how I knew him, It's funny like that. To me, he's just that guy Ben with the cool girlfriend and La Cimbali in the kitchen. To my crew, he's a real-life rock star.

Of course, the aforementioned coffee guy is now hanging out on the front line, trying to chat incessantly with one of my crew - undoubtedly about coffee. Never mind that the line is still thirty deep. Ugh.

Isabelle, Sara and Allie.

Artscape is like waging war. It's logistics. Getting all the materials in place at the right time. Screw one thing up and it creates a domino effect that can wipe you out. Three days and it's a five-figure game. Make the wrong moves and it hits the company's bottom line pretty darn hard. But do it right and you can pay your staff a nice wage, and maybe buy yourself that chamber vacuum sealer you've been thinking about.

But it has to be right. Fall short of inventory and you're shutting down early facing lost revenue. Too much inventory and you've got to eat it. The balance has to be just right. For this years' Artscape, we'll consume roughly two hundred gallons of syrup and nearly two tons of ice.

Then there's the matter of personnel. Too few and you can't produce enough to make a profit. Too many and the labor eats your profit. Saturdays require at least ten people working non-stop for twelve hours. It's killer work and only the best will survive the ordeal. And have to be honest: sometimes I wonder if I'll survive it myself.

But it's over now. And I've got a dark suntan to prove it.

Back to the bar at The Spro.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dread Week Roberts

The Jay's Shave Ice booth from the truck at Artscape.

A few people have asked me if I've been excited about Artscape, our little company's biggest weekend of the year. To be honest, for months I dread this week. So many things to do, so many things to organize and get in line - it's excruciating. This will be our ninth Artscape and it's just painful. The first couple I organized and learned how to put it all together. Then for a few years, Polly and Al took care of organizing it all. Since 2006, I've been back at the helm and hating every moment.

Okay, maybe I'm just being dramatic. Truth is, I'd prefer to be sitting in a hammock, sipping margaritas with a girl way too young for me by my side while two minions gently fan us with big, feather fans. So much for the hammock, margaritas and minions with fans - at least I can have the girl.

But really, I dread the whole process until this evening - after everything has been put in motion and the booth is setup and ready to go, now is the point where I start to enjoy doing Artscape. Tomorrow, our crew comes together to wage the war of ice and syrup once again, while wrestling with hot weather and what the City of Baltimore tells us will be up to 2 million attendees over a three day weekend.

Like war, waging Artscape is a delicate balance between heat and humidity. Too hot and humid and people stay home. Too cool and people want to buy something silly, like coffee. Over the years, I've found that low humidity and a temperature between 80-90F is just right. Everyone comes out, has a great time and buys more shave ice.

And it needs to go right. I've got five digits invested already.

Of course, the skies could open and dump buckets of rain and ruin me. Or a freak tornado could wipe the entire site out and I'll be crying on Skid Row.

Barring those series of unfortunate incidents, you'll find us this weekend at the corner of Mt. Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street once again making the shave ice that made us famous.

June 18, 19 & 20
Mount Royal Avenue
Baltimore, MD

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Eastbound and Down

The new electronic automatic transmission.

Every year for the past eight years or so, I've rented a 26' box truck from Penske to haul all the gear Jay's Shave Ice needs to stage our booth at Artscape, Baltimore's annual festival of the arts. For me, it's a fun time because I get to drive a big truck around town and it's my time to reminisce the "old days" when I used to drive tour buses for Roberts Hawaii (yes, the big Greyhound type of buses).

I've driven all kinds of trucks with all kinds of transmissions from double-clutch manual buses to automatic trucks loaded down with gear. Every two years or so, Penske replaces their trucks and this year was no different. But this time, my truck came with a new electronic transmission.

As far as transmissions go, it works good enough, but I hate it. The lag between shifts is both unnerving and irritating. You're just waiting for it to shift to the next gear. I know for many of you with normal cars this is hard to fathom but imagine driving in first gear then shifting to neutral for two seconds and then shifting to second. Add in the fact that you need it to shift NOW and that should give you a basic idea of what it's like.

Not to mention the trucks' propensity to roll backwards at stop lights.

Taking iPhone Pictures While Driving: High peril on the open roadway.

And that doesn't begin to cover reverse. Shift the sucker into reverse and it's like a bronco, trying to buck you off. Shudder, shudder, shudder - and the thing barely starts to move. Then suddenly, it wants to jump backwards in fits. My Lord, this is intolerable!

Oh well, I guess I can live with the shift lag and the shaky reverse. It's only for a couple of days anyway.

Meanwhile, I'll be playing The King Of The Road...

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Stigma of Seduction

How To Spot A Dangerous Man - I was interviewed for that book.

Allie and I were wandering around the library today when she pointed out to me the dating books in the Self-Help/Psychology section. As I perused the stacks, one thing hit me: 98% of the books on dating are for women. They're written to help the woman find a man, keep a man, cuckold a man, etc, etc. Where were the books on dating for men?

In today's society, there's a stigma about men studying, reading or learning techniques on dating and picking up women. As though such knowledge will only be used for the nefarious purpose of seduction and sex. Certainly, that is a wonderful end result because everybody wants to be desired and seduced. But it's not always about the sex.

For years I've heard women bemoan the lack of good men while they run into the arms of assholes and tell the nice guys "let's just be friends." They don't understand why some really great guys can't find a nice girl. But have some guys talking about how to meet and pickup girls, or read books on such, and suddenly they're screaming about how "wrong" it is and how it's only about using girls.

Such a strange reaction when in every aspect of our lives we're expected to prepare. Want to get a good job? Go to school and get a degree. Prepare. Want to run a marathon? Workout, train and prepare. Want to be successful in life? Prepare.

All this preparation yet when it comes to one of (if not) the most important aspects of your life, you're expected to merely "wing it." As a man, you're expected to somehow know exactly what to do with a woman - yet, it's commonly accepted that men know nothing about women. Huh???

How many guys do I know in the world that are genuinely nice guys? Guys who will respect and take care of their women. The kind of guys that girls yearn for. Yet they sit at home, night after night or hang out with their friends because they just don't know how to approach women and the social stigma prohibits them from learning.

So come on now, ladies. We need more books for guys on how to meet and talk to women. Enough with the tomes on "How To Cuckold Your Man." Give us "Meeting, Chatting and Kissing Women" books for the nice guys of the world. Let them learn some techniques. Let them get a little dirty. Then you'll have these genuinely loving, caring guys with a wicked sense on how to make your toes curl...

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Ranch Hand Fries - topped with melted cheeses and pulled chicken.

Fresh off a great time at the Chef & Wine Experience, I met Cecilia at Rub BBQ at the back end of Federal Hill on Light Street. I had been wanting to check out Rub for quite some time and with the heavy thunderstorms and high humidity plowing through the city, what better time to check it out?

Billing itself as "Authentic Texas Barbecue," Rub is a lot smaller than I expected. Think converted neighborhood bar rather than neighborhood restaurant and you'll start to get the idea of the size. As you drive down Light Street, past all of the commercial areas of Federal Hill and into a more residential area, you start to wonder if you've somehow missed it. That is, until you see the glow from the very large neon sign mounted to the side of the building like a beacon in the wilderness.

The interior reminds me of a Texas honkytonk: dark with a bar that's illuminated almost solely by a variety of neon beer signs. There's only about three people working the front of the house on this Sunday evening and there's maybe a total of fifteen guests, including Cecilia and myself.

As I peruse the menu, I'm thinking strategy. The fried green tomatoes look interesting but I'd like to know how their fries taste, but I don't want to order fries with my meal since there's a plethora of tasty-sounding sides that need proper exploration. Field greens and chicken wings seem as though they would be a waste of tummy space, so I decide to order the Ranch Hand Fries topped with melted cheese and pulled chicken or beef. After consulting with our server, who says the chicken is the most popular, we go with that.

It takes a good, long while for that appetizer to arrive. Meanwhile, I'm sampling the sweet tea and it's about average. Nothing to write home about but nothing to send back either. Still waiting for the appetizer. We chat. Still waiting. The rain is just starting. Still waiting.

My third child is about to graduate from college and I'm still waiting.

Finally, the appetizer arrives and it's anti-climactic. A few bites later and I'm wondering what took so darn long? Did they run to SuperFresh to buy some more potatoes? The fries are on the soft side and undercooked. They're also frozen foodservice fries lazily placed on a plate and slathered with shredded chicken and a white and yellow cheddar mix before being tossed under the broiler. Once the cheese is melted, some diced tomatoes are thrown on top (along with one tiny slice of onion) and a lame ranch dressing placed on the side.

By now, I'm starving and my eating of the dish is fueled by hunger rather than desire. It's ugly and the dish is terrible. Just lazy and thoughtless. There's a very weird pineapple taste in the dish and I can't figure out why. It's sweet and disgusting. I taste a couple of bites with the ranch dressing and it's certainly not an improvement. In fact, the dressing makes it worse.

Two Meat Platter - black angus brisket, Texas flat ribs, mac-n-cheese, home-style green beans.

Next it's time to order our main courses. Like I said, I like to sample a variety of flavors, which is why I was flabbergasted when Cecilia decided to order the same main course as I did. I chose the two meat mixed plate, and with five types of meats on the menu to choose from, you'd think that she would order two different ones that we could share.

But maybe I'm just being petty.

For my meats, I chose the Black Angus Brisket and the Texas Flat Ribs with macaroni and cheese and home-style green beans as the sides. Cecilia chose cole slaw and Texas Corn Pudding as her sides. And again we waited.

This time, my third child got married.

For a place that's relatively empty and slow on a Sunday night, the orders were taking inordinately long. And it's not as though these are meats they're cooking a la minute. The brisket is billed as the house specialty, slow-smoked for 12-14 hours. It's gotta be done by now.

Finally, the platters arrive and there's a slight problem: two Corn Puddings but no slaw. That's rectified quickly enough but the slaw is terrible too. Lots of mayo but no bite. Where's the vinegar? Where's the balance? The corn pudding is quite good though. Creamy, tasty with a definite corn flavor and a slight bite from the serrano peppers. It's second only to my macaroni and cheese, which is kinda plain in a Kraft kinda way - Kraft that's been broiled in the oven, which I actually like.

The platters are served with two slices of Texas Toast, some pickled onions and spicy sliced pickles. The pickles are tasty but I have to wonder about the toast. They look like the commercial Texas Toast you buy at the grocery store. In fact, I'd swear it was the very same bread you buy in the grocery store. Is this really how authentic bbq is eaten in Texas?

Then there are the green beans. Order them and it's an extra dollar. With that kind of pricing and hype, I'm expecting them to be killer.

They're okay. At least their fresh. But they've been cooked past their snap point so they're slightly on the soggy side. Cooked with onion, bacon, butter and chicken stock they're kinda tasty - at least there's a lot of bacon to chew on, but I'm not pounding them down like I would expect.

Which brings us to the meat. I have to be honest. I want to like the meat. I desperately want to write great things about it. But I can't. At best, it was disappointing. At worst, it was horrible.

Twelve to fourteen hours for the brisket. Perhaps ten would be better. The brisket was dry. Maybe it was cooked too long. Maybe it was rethermalized improperly. Whatever the case, it was dry, lifeless and tasted like cardboard. It needed the bbq sauce on the table.

Unfortunately, the ribs weren't much better. Again, on the dry side with a rub that really didn't compliment the meat. In fact, the rub was just a letdown. It offered very little to the experience. Maybe there wasn't enough applied at cooking. The ribs too needed the table sauces.

Cecilia wanted to go for dessert. I just couldn't stomach anymore. She ordered the peach cobbler (or something like that). I tasted it. It wasn't bad, but I had had enough.

In the end, I'm disappointed with Rub. I expected so much from this place. I had heard positive things. I wanted to love the place. Unfortunately, the food fell flat and I went home in the rain.

1843 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21230

The Chef & Wine Experience

Michaele Weissman invited me to join her and Spike Gjerde and give a coffee talk at the Baltimore Chefs & Wine Experience. It's an annual event where the public comes to meet chefs, listen to them speak, sample their food and try all sorts of wines and other vestiges of Good Living.

For those of you who may not know, Michaele wrote a book on the coffee industry's Third Wave - that eclectic crew of hipster/geek coffee people who work to revolutionize the coffee industry (of course, the question is: are they really "revolutionary" or actually evolutionary?). It's called God In A Cup and available nationwide at your local booksellers.

In spite of the fact that I do coffee for a living, the enthusiasm of the general public about coffee continually surprises me. We had about fifty people pack into our little lecture room where Michaele shared her thoughts on the industry, Spike talked about bringing a New World Order of coffee to restaurants and I generally pontificated about drinking and enjoying your coffee.

In addition to merely chatting about coffee, we decided to have a coffee tasting. Nothing as stuffy or important as cupping with geeky coffee people slurping and talking about "black currants and frozen nutmeg." No, nothing as silly as that. Just some simple press potted coffee served in small cups - actually, the venue (showing their knowledge, sophistication and grasp of coffee) gave us styrofoam cups. Bastards.

For our tasting, I chose two coffees. The first, a Sumatra Mandheling Organic from Indonesia, roasted by Origins Organic Coffee of Vancouver, Canada, as well as the Finca El Puente from Honduras, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC. I chose the two because of their difference. I didn't want some lame coffee, I wanted something interesting and vibrant. Coffees that would be so different than from each other that it would be easier for the uninitiated to experience the difference.

That's one thing that continually irritates me: accessibility. Whether it's wine or coffee, we tend to speak with such fancy terms that regular people have a hard time connecting. There's red wine and rose petals in coffee??? Only the truly geeky ever speak like this - and only the disconnected actually speak like this to the uninitiated.

For our tasting, I told the audience that it's okay to use those fancy terms but what's more important is to be able to describe the sensation in your own words - however that may manifest itself. For previous tastings, I've encouraged people to use everything from fancy words to colors to rock bands. Man, this tastes like AC/DC's Shoot To Thrill...

Whatever it takes to make it your own, that's what you should use.

Lots of questions followed, and one girl in the audience asked me if I like sugar and cream in my coffee. Hmmm, good question. The hardcore in the Third Wave would immediately stand up and impose their vision like the Fourth Reich and give an absolute "NO" for an answer. Truth is, she asked if I liked cream and sugar in my coffee - and if I'm not tasting the coffee critically and simply drinking it for personal enjoyment, then the answer is an emphatic "YES MA'AM" And if the Third Wave doesn't like it, they can go screw themselves because I absolutely love an 8z coffee with a half teaspoon of sugar and a touch of cream to go with a deep-fried chocolate frosted donut.

I don't know if perhaps I was talking too much, going over time or my revelation about the sugar and cream was too much for Michaele to handle because that's when she steered our discussion back to trying the coffee black to see how it tastes (of course, the girl that asked the question was also the same girl with an unabashed love for sweet frappuccinos). But the audience was great. Even more questions and some great insight into the coffees. For many of them, I'm guessing it was their first time trying some seriously great coffees and I hope they tasted a glimpse into what is possible out there. Hopefully, they'll seek out better quality or maybe come and visit The Spro.

Overall, I had a great time at the event. It was fun to be amongst the great chefs of Baltimore. Several Food Network celebrities were in attendance and earlier, we stopped in to watch one of them give a presentation. For someone with a national television show, I was disappointed in the delivery and level of engagement this person gave at the presentation. From an entertainment standpoint, it was pretty darn lame and disappointing. I went in hoping to pick up some presentation tips from a celebrity, I left after ten minutes because my mind was numbing. Gosh, I hope I'm not that bad in front of an audience.

Speaking of television and food, Jill was hanging out and came to see our presentation. It's always great seeing Jill and she's leaving this week in some sort of mystery trip where she may or may not be picked up for next season's Top Chef. She's sworn to secrecy, so details are sketchy. All we know is that she'll be gone for six weeks and we'll find out the rest next season.

I also met a really nice lady who asked for my card and said she would forward it on to the producer of Hell's Kitchen. Wow. That was a surprise. How much fun would it be to spend a television season being yelled at and berated by Gordon Ramsay? Hey you, I've had enough of that, yeah big boy? Put it in the bin, you fucking donkey....

Good fun, indeed.

Chicken Joy

The girls relating with the chickens.

My nieces have been staying at the house for the past few days and I've been teaching them a little bit about cooking. Yesterday, I showed them how to individually freeze fresh bing cherries and also how to make cherry jam.

The thing about working with me is that it's not a show-and-tell demonstration class, it's live and hands-on. They're doing the work. I'm just making sure they're doing it correctly.

But today we drove up to Springfield Farm to tour the grounds and see how the animals live. Touring the farm is always enlightening. Over time, you start to get a feel for how they do things as the pens move across the land offering the chickens, ducks and geese new, fertile ground upon which to graze.

Ready to eat those chickens.

Since my experiences last year, I've become a believer in understanding where your food comes from. Which is why I brought the girls here today and let them mingle with the chickens. They asked learned that this is where our chickens come from. That these chickens pecking around in front of us would, someday, be in front of us again - and on a plate. They seemed very comfortable going from talking with the chickens in the pens to pulling whole birds out of the refrigerator.

Back at the house, it was time for fried chicken. After butchering a chicken (okay, I did that part), the girls dried off the parts, seasoned them with salt and pepper, then shook them in flour before we laid them in the cast iron filled with 375F oil.

Fifteen minutes later, the chicken was golden, crispy and delicious. I wanted mine with rice. They wanted theirs with ketchup.

Guess I'll have to keep working on them...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fresh Fresh Seafood

Allie and her tilapia stuffed with lump crab meat.

After another long day at The Spro, I took Allie over to one of my favorite local restaurants: Fresh Fresh Seafood on York Road, immediately south of the Towson Circle. It's a true Mom and Pop shop run by a real mom and pop. I've been coming here for the past two years and it's always been good.

Fresh Fresh's entrance is kinda small, nondescript and so easy to miss that I'm surprised anyone actually finds this place. The decor is minimal to non-existent. There are some mural-type paintings on the wall, formica tables and those same steel chairs you find in all the cheap eateries. Simply put: if you're coming for the decor, you're going to be extremely disappointed.

What you do come here for is the seafood. The owners make no claims as to the provenance of the ingredients - just that it's always fresh and always prepared to order. Service is sorta odd and fruity - there's really no way to describe it otherwise. It's not bad, it's just odd and fruity - almost off-kilter. But no matter how odd it may seem from time to time, they're just so nice and so welcoming and so earnest in their service that nothing else matters and you quickly overlook all the quirkiness.

I don't eat at Fresh Fresh all the time. It's usually saved for when baristas come to town to visit The Spro. After a day of talking/making coffee, a meal at Fresh Fresh caps off the day.

Scallops in lemon butter.

Today they're offering freshly squeezed lemonade and it's hot outside. Thankfully, their cups are bottomless and we're making good use of their generosity. It's sweet and lightly tarty. Actually, I would have preferred a bit more tartiness but it will do.

First round are scallops in lemon butter. Sometime I just get in the mood for scallops and must have them. This was one of those times. They were just right: seared with butter. Can you ask for more?

For our main courses, Allie had the broiled tilapia stuffed with lump crab meat and I had the Chilean sea bass. My bass was thick, meaty and tender but could have used a more liberal seasoning of salt and pepper. It was good but such a large cut of sea bass tends to get monotonous over time and I think a smaller portion would have been more enjoyable. Allie's tilapia was done the way I like it - with crispy edges for texture. It too needed more seasoning but was still quite good.

It's fresh food prepared with simple ingredients and techniques. Just what the doctor ordered.

Chilean Sea Bass.

One thing you'll notice from the images is that it's very simple food. Nothing extraneous or elaborate. Just food. The sides were also simple: macaroni and cheese, french fries and broccoli. I'm always a fan of macaroni and cheese but the fries need to be blanched before being finished fried because they lose that crisp and the broccoli would have been better had they been steamed just a little less - I prefer more of a "snap" in my veggies.

But otherwise, it was another good meal at Fresh Fresh. But one thing to remember about Fresh Fresh, it may look simple but it's not necessarily cheap. This is quality seafood in large portions at an appropriate price. Our meal cost eighty dollars with tip. But like I said, it's fresh and made to order - which also means that it takes a bit longer since it's only pop in the kitchen while mom works the floor.

Fresh Fresh Seafood
507 York Rd
Towson, MD 21204
(410) 821-3474

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chef Boyardee?

A Bit Too Salty Pasta

Sometimes you wonder if you're really having a disconnect with kids.

My nieces are here and they're hungry. They want pasta and I'm thinking about whipping up an incredible concoction that they're going to love. What kind of pasta do you want?, I ask them while nurturing visions of fresh Marvesta shrimp sauteed in oil, butter, garlic, onion and capers.

But they want a tomato based sauce, like spaghetti. The problem is that I don't have anything like that lying around the house at the moment. Undaunted, I decide that if a tomato-based sauce is what they want, that's what they're gonna get.

Into the saute pan goes some olive oil, some macerated garlic, Springfield Farm ground pork, locally grown tomatoes, tomato sauce, oregano, fresh basil, pepper and perhaps a bit too much salt. Saute the pork, onions and garlic, add the rest and simmer. It's simple and classic. Not to mention relatively easy to whip up.

For a brief moment, I think about adding some sugar to sweeten the pot and dumping it all in the blender to puree - since that's kinda how Chef Boyaree looks like: pureed. I decide against it thinking that the girls will love it. They are, afterall, my nieces.

They hate it. After a combination of overly salted pasta water and a bit of a heavy hand, the sauce is a bit on the salty side. Even for me. Damn, I should have used the sugar and blender.

For a brief moment, I consider stocking a can of Chef Boyardee for the next time they come to visit. But I can't...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

It's A Paella Party!

Smoked French Fries doing their thing.

It's the Fourth of July and everyone has gathered at my house for another year of food, drink, fireworks and... rain.

Damn rain. For days before, it's beautifully sunny, but on the day it counts: rain. Puta y Madre.

Last year I hosted a Lechon Party where we roasted a whole pig over an open fire in the method of our Philippine grandfathers. It was a splendid day - except for the rain, and I had planned on doing a BBQ Party until Gordon Ramsay got into my head.

It must have been his episode of Kitchen Nightmares where he goes to Spain and ends up cooking a large paella on the beach. It looked amazing and I decided then that the paella was what we had to do for this years' party.

Gathering 'round the Paella.

As quick search on the Internet turns up all sorts of possibilities for paella. From pans to burners to recipes and ingredients. I'm flummoxed but decide that a proper party just isn't a paella party without a proper paella pan. Most commoners would max out at at the 18" pan, but that's just not a proper size for a proper party. I decide that the 31" pan is the right size for our efforts.

At nearly three feet in diameter, this pan is quite serious. The largest is 52" and sells for a whopping six hundred dollars. Okay, I'm serious, but not that serious. The 31" pan is designed to serve up to 40 people. That should be plenty.

The biggest hindrance to the party is my trip to Europe. I'm scheduled to return on July 1st, which gives me just enough time to procure and prep everything. Of course, I'm delayed in Frankfurt and arrive a day later, which leaves me with one day to get everything together for the party. It's an absolute mad scramble.

In one day, I'll hit the farmer's market, the farms, the market, another supermarket, two liquor stores and have a proper breakfast - not to mention setting up my outdoor kitchen featuring full refrigeration, heating cabinets, prep tables, sinks, grills, smoker and the piece de resistance: my forty pound deep fryer.

Around 2pm on the 4th, friends start trickling in. CapitolSwell, Athos and SonSo1 make their way, as does Matt S. visiting from Florida. Everyone gets to work on the deep prep for the paella.

For weeks, the paella perplexed me. Until I met Elisabeth from Barcelona in Copenhagen. All these recipes and Elisabeth boiled them down to the most salient point: screw the recipes, just use whatever is fresh at the market that day. Evidently, it's what Spaniards like Elisabeth does when they're making paella: whatever is fresh.

With those words, the weight of Espana was lifted off my shoulders. Shopping for exotic Spanish ingredients is stressful. Shopping for whatever is fresh and local is, well, normal.

My trips to the market yielded the following bounty:
Tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic, cilantro, basil, rosemary, sage, cebollas, corn, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, russet potatoes, Alaskan salmon, Marvesta shrimp, Old Salte Clams, Springfield chicken, ancho sausage, medium grain rice, string beans, mushrooms - all of which would go either into the paella or the sangria.

From there, the paella is relatively simple. Sweat the onions and garlic in olive oil, saute the chicken and sausage, add the veggies, add the rice, add the saffron, add the chicken stock and simmer. About fifteen minutes later, stir in the rest of the seafood and let the whole thing cook down until ready.

To be honest, I had never made paella before. In my entire life. I was flying completely blind. Completely on instinct. I didn't know what I was doing but I was plowing ahead come hell or high water. Imminent disaster was at every turn. There's easily five hundred dollars worth of ingredients in the pan and I could fuck it up at any moment.

This was cooking not for the feint of heart.

Meanwhile, the deep fryer was doing it's thing with our smoked french fries. It's a technique we pioneered at the Woodberry Kitchen/Ideas In Food dinner where you smoke the potatoes and then finish fry. It adds a deep character to the fries that's complex and delicious. Ours were smoked in Mesquite for twenty minutes.

To tide the prep crew over, we whipped up some steak frites and passed them around. Not to mention the beer and sangria to keep everyone company.

Almost ready.

After a brief technical problem with our heat source, the paella was running at full speed ahead. It took longer than expected (about two hours) but the paella came out pretty well I think. Chock full of veggies and proteins, what could one ask for?

The rain chased some of the fireworks and revelers away this year but the ladies came, allowing me to show off my prowess in handling a big stick (the stirring paddle).

Next year I'm looking for something to top this one. Maybe Lechon Baka - baby cow roasted over an open fire.